A person’s life rarely, if ever, has a straight-forward narrative arc. Lives are not stories. Take for example the fact that the start of my own life could be written rather romantically. On the 12th day of the year in which England were later to win the FIFA World Cup snow was falling around a red MG TC. A young woman stood at the top of the steps and took her baby from the midwife. The midwife was clearly concerned, asking “You are not getting in that are you?” My mother made her way down to the car, by pushing the seat back as far as it would go just sufficient space could be created for the crib to sit on her lap. In this style my father drove his wife and new baby home.
This version of events, while true in every factual respect, fails to convey some of the essential features of the first stage of my life. To grasp those one really needs to wind back the clock a few years.
The key moment took place sometime in the summer of 1959 when a tall young woman, experimenting with athletics for the first time, threw a discus which narrowly missed a shorter, and only very slightly older man. Thus my parents, both misfits, met.
Chris Evans had emigrated with his family to Canada in 1953, a few months after the North Sea Flood had swept over Canvey Island where they lived killing 58 people. The family spent two years in Hamilton while Thomas, who had fought his way through the entire Second World War, worked in the steel works around Lake Ontario. This does not seem to have worked out and they made the return trip across the Atlantic Ocean in 1955, when Chris was 13. He left school at 16 to work for the electronics company Marconi, who recognised his potential and sponsored him to do his A levels in evening classes. He had started playing rugby for the Essex Colts and was looking for a way to keep fit during the summer months. At the advice of one of his teachers he joined the Hadleigh Olympians.
Jennifer Smith was nowhere near as well travelled as Chris, having lived in the house in which she was born for her entire life. Her brother David had been born before the war started, and her parents waited ten years before having Jennifer who was soon followed by Lesley. Jennifer was thus in a way the eldest, but in reality paled in the light of her much older brother, and was also not the youngest – the dancing, musical apple of her mother’s eye. Very poor academically, frequently getting into trouble at school, she had left school with no qualifications and started work as soon as she could as a secretary daily commuting into London. Whatever her intellectual shortcomings were at school she made up for it in sporting prowess, especially in the pool where her height (of which she was generally ashamed) was an advantage. She had started feeling self conscious about the size of her shoulder muscles due to her swimming. Looking for another athletic outlet she joined the Hadleigh Olympians. Jennifer’s speciality was sprinting, but on this evening she chose to experiment with the discus (not necessarily the best choice for someone looking to avoid shoulder muscle development). The discus was hurdled just missing my father and first contact was made in a relationship that was to last a lifetime.
Their first date was on September fifth in 1959 and they went swimming off Leigh-on-Sea. Looking to impress this woman who was a good club swimmer, Chris proposed a race out to the buoy in the channel and back. He set off and was up to the floating marker before he realised that he was alone. Jennifer, not wishing to engage in a race that she could win and in the process show up the first young man that had paid her any attention, had remained in the shallows. The relationship developed, as these things do, and the couple was welcomed into Jennifer’s family who enjoyed Chris’s company and treated him like a new son. They went on holiday as an extended family, which allowed the pair to see each other at leisure while maintaining propriety.
So right at the start of the swinging sixties Jenny and Chris began a very exclusive relationship that was to endure, sometimes challenged but never broken, the rest of their lives. In those days you had to be over 21 to be legally allowed to marry but they were desperate to do so. Both sets of parents then had to agree to their wedding taking place in 1963.
Chris was still working for Marconi and they agreed to sponsor him through a degree in Production Engineering at Loughborough University. He started there in 1962, staying in Rutland Hall. Totally against the rules for freshmen at Loughborough he brought a car. The two of them had sold Jenny’s engagement ring to buy an MG TC, the sole purpose of which was to enable them to see one another. Although he hid the car away from the university, it was soon discovered but he escaped serious censure and he was allowed to keep it. Chris studied in Loughborough during the term and worked for Marconi in Essex during the vacations. Jenny had a job as a personal assistant in Brown Brothers in Central London, commuting between Hadleigh and Fenchurch Street every day.
The wedding took place in Hadleigh Church on the 31st August 1963. After they married the two of them continued to flip between Loughborough and Essex. Jenny took secretarial jobs where she could, changing them every few months. To manage this backwards and forwards life style they bought a caravan in which they could live – the Shoebox, and towed it the 140 miles or so in each direction at the beginning and end of each term with an old Series One Landrover – the Iron Duke. With a complete lack of insight into how this might be taken by French people, they took the Iron Duke to France for their first trip overseas in the summer of 1964.
Life on a caravan site was not particularly safe in the 1960s, caravans were not well built, and safety standards were low. Nevertheless Jenny and Chris maintained their peripatetic lifestyle for four years. The hazards though were more than amply demonstrated when a nearby caravan exploded. When bottled gas ran out it was easy to leave the cooker and heater taps on, after reconnection the gas could run unchecked into the caravan. The poor woman who lived in this particular caravan just walked in, struck a match, and the colourless, odourless gas caught alight in a massive fireball. She staggered out of the caravan horribly burnt and died a few days later. Jenny and Chris were in the Shoebox a few plots away and the explosion brought them rushing outside. Jenny was pregnant at the time, according to an old wive’s tale birthmarks appear because the pregnant mother gets a shock. The foetus in Jenny’s womb at the time was me, and I do have a birthmark on my chest.
Chris’s family decided that Australia might be a better place to settle than Canada, and emigrated for the second time in December leaving on the TV Fairstar for Adelaide, arriving there on 14th December 1965. At more or less the same time Jenny was admitted to hospital as her blood pressure was so high that it was thought that the baby might be jeopardised. Ten days of bed rest in hospital ended when she persuaded the doctors to let her out on Christmas eve, mainly because Chris would have been alone in the caravan over the festive season. This was the young couple’s first Christmas by themselves, and some of the artefacts created for the occasion existed long into my childhood. Particularly long-lived was the hand made star that adorned the top of every Christmas tree from 1965 onwards. Jenny was admitted to the City Maternity Home in Westcote Drive on the 9th of January. She was having contractions and always claimed to have been in labour for three days. After being threatened with a forceps delivery I emerged into the world in the early hours of Wednesday 12th January, and so we catch up with the opening paragraph of this story.
An MG in the 1960s had no seat belts, no such thing as a child seat existed even if it could be fitted and so I was simply held by my mother as the open topped car negotiated the slippery roads. Fifteen miles on narrow tyres in the snow back to the caravan in Palma Park.
We all lived in that caravan until my father graduated in the summer, and as he went back to work full-time my parents decided that some kind of bricks and mortar accommodation may be appropriate. This was especially so as Jenny was pregnant again by August of 1966.
So this is how it all started for me, my parents were a very young couple living in a caravan. They had nothing to their name except ‘The Shoe Box’, ‘The Iron Duke’ and an MG TC. It was not the worst of starts to a life, but not by any means a privileged one.